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Improving Human Interactions in the Science Lab

Photonics Spectra
Aug 2009
David L. Shenkenberg, Features Editor, david.shenkenberg@laurin.com

Although scientists need to interact with one another in a laboratory environment, they typically receive no training in resolving interpersonal conflicts. According to Carl M. Cohen, a management consultant who specializes in training scientists, “There is a tendency in science to focus on objective issues and to believe that the correct argument will always win based on science, but, in reality, there are all kinds of factors that play a role.”

Cohen should know. He was a science professor at Tufts University, and he held various management roles at St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Boston before going on to executive roles, including vice president and chief operating officer, at several Boston-area biotechnology companies.

Cohen’s experience has shown him that the personnel issues in academic labs, small companies and corporations tend to differ. “In academia, it’s all about getting credit for your work; students are frequently in conflict with their advisers and peers [because they are all] jockeying for advancement and recognition,” he said. This individual-achiever mindset can create huge problems in a teamwork-oriented company environment. In large corporations, conflicts often are more subtle than in small companies. “I once consulted to a [large] company that actively discouraged the use of the words ‘problem,’ ‘conflict’ [and] ‘disagreement,’” Cohen said. “In fact, there was a lot of conflict beneath the surface that wasn’t getting dealt with.”

Other common disagreements that can arise in the lab include arguments over shared equipment and space, as well as over cleanup. The lack of personal hygiene or professional attire also can cause friction.

Conflict resolution is best achieved by addressing problems in a way that is reasonable and fair. “If your leaders solve problems through intimidation, are demeaning of others, ignore conflict and hope it will go away, then others in the organization will learn this is the culture and will do the same,” Cohen noted. His book, Lab Dynamics: Management Skills for Scientists, goes into more detail about these issues.

Question of allegiance

“Scientists don’t like to be managed, so you have to be careful with how you manage them,” said L. Wayne Collins, who has a 20-year history of lab management, primarily at Solvay. He suggests managing “more through persuasion than authority.”

Collins said that allegiance to science often is at odds with allegiance to the company. For example, scientists want to have solid evidence before making a claim, whereas sales and marketing people often want to use “good enough” answers.

Although scientists with the best technical skills usually are promoted to lab management positions, technical wizards are not always the best managers. Effective lab management requires excellent “people” and business skills. Scientific credibility is important but not foremost on the list.

In many cases, it is often unknown whether the outcome of a science experiment will lead to a marketable result. Lab managers must decide where to focus the company resources. They also need to convey enthusiasm to their teams in the face of uncertainty. According to Collins, one way that scientists can learn people skills is through Dale Carnegie training.

Various models have been developed to increase employee performance, including two called Six Sigma and SMART. In the down economy, there has been a trend toward the lean laboratory, which is about eliminating waste. The Six Sigma model is similar to the lean laboratory model in that it looks for defects. The SMART model – an acronym for Specific Measurable Actionable Relevant Timely – is about evidence-based performance.

The pay-for-performance, or agency, model is another one to consider. Harvard Business School professor Robert D. Austin argues that this model applies poorly to knowledge workers because they often go into a field because they enjoy it, not because of bonus pay. He suggests playing up their love for the job and encouraging collaboration and professionalism.

Sometimes terminating the employment of a lab member becomes necessary. The reasons for termination can include forging data and credentials. “There is zero tolerance for that sort of thing,” Collins said. “One strike and you’re out.” Or a scientist simply might fail to perform the required functions of the job, even after extensive counseling.

Secrets of success

One helpful way to learn lab management is to take a course. That is why several institutions organized the San Diego Lab Management Symposium.

The course is geared toward postdoctoral researchers considering faculty positions at academic laboratories. The kinds of topics discussed include startup projects and budgets, time management, hiring staff, leadership styles, finding an academic job and navigating the tenure process. Past sponsors of the course include The Scripps Research Institute, Burnham Institute for Medical Research, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the University of California, San Diego.

Career fears often arise when searching for that perfect faculty position. “Career concerns can be closely tied to unclear professional goals or conflicting values,” said Ryan Wheeler, who counsels postdocs and graduate students at Scripps. “I help [postdocs and grad students] examine their own interests, skills and values in order to clarify options,” Wheeler added. “I also provide tools and approaches for constructive communication and goal-setting with their advisers.”

The Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have produced a comprehensive guide to managing science labs called Making the Right Moves. All 13 chapters of this e-book are freely downloadable to anyone with Internet access to www.hhmi.org.

As consultants, Carl M. Cohen and his wife, Suzanne L. Cohen, a psychologist, run workshops on- and off-site throughout the country via their company, Science Management Associates (http://www.sciencema.com). They also do individual training and coaching.

L. Wayne Collins is a past president of the Association of Laboratory Managers (ALMA) and the current editor of Managing the Modern Laboratory. He is the chemical and petroleum industry manager for Agilent Technologies.

Ryan Wheeler is manager of the office of postdoctoral services at Scripps Research Institute. He meets regularly with postdocs and grad students for career counseling, serves as facilitator for job search workshops and organizes professional development events.


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